Lies & Omens
Sylvie Lightner is a P.I. specializing in the unusual—in a world where magic is real, and Hell is just around the corner.
After escaping secret government cells and destroying a Miami landmark, Sylvie’s trying to lay low—something that gets easier when a magical force starts taking out her enemies. But these magical attacks are a risk to bystanders, and Sylvie can’t let that slide.
When the war between the government and the magical world threatens the three people closest to her—her assistant, her sister, and her lover—Sylvie has no choice but to get involved with hidden powers bent on shaping the world to their liking. Now, with death and disaster on the horizon, even if Sylvie wins, things will never be the same...
“I don’t know about this,” Detective Raul Garza said again. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. Afternoon sunlight spilled hot and heavy through the windshield and the open windows. The faux–leather seats had gone sticky and soft, as irritating as his incessant finger drumming. Garza scowled at the world from beneath his mirrored sunglasses.
He wasn’t the only one. Sylvie Lightner had been sitting beside him in the unmarked car for the past three hours. In that period, he’d expressed his doubts about their purpose no fewer than ten times. A frustrated scream built in her chest.
Coming to Key West to help Garza hadn’t been her idea, and it sure as hell wasn’t something she’d do for fun. For work, on the other hand—as Miami’s go–to girl for dealing with the supernatural nasties, this kind of moment was all too common, right down to the thinly veiled dislike Garza showed her. Made sense. Sylvie had so many strikes against her that it was hard to pick out which one bothered him the most. Unlicensed PI with a reputation for trouble? A vigilante who took care of problems the police didn’t want to acknowledge? A woman with a liking for large–caliber weaponry, a smart mouth, and something dangerous in her blood? Or maybe Garza had caught wind of her change in reputation. It had been bad before. The Magicus Mundi—the supernatural world that mingled with the mortal one—had called her L’enfant du meurtrier, The Murderer’s Child.
Now they knew her as the New Lilith. The dark heir to an immortal woman who had wanted to make war on her god. If Sylvie’s reputation had been bad before, now it was abysmal. She was unpopular with everyone. Witches. Monsters. Law enforcement. And nosy and controlling government agencies like Internal Surveillance and Investigation, who would rather blame her for the magical problems than deal with them on their own. No one liked her; they all treated her with suspicion and fear.
Sylvie didn’t understand it. It wasn’t like being the new Lilith had done much to change her beyond increasing her innate resistance to inimical magic.
Beyond making us immortal, her little dark voice said. She ignored it. She often did. It was another genetic legacy, an all–too–active form of ancestral memory. It had its uses, not least its desire to survive, but it also was a little like having the world’s most cynical and angry roommate living in her head. She hoped it was wrong about the immortality thing; on the off chance it wasn’t, she’d started trying to play nice. Forever was a terribly long time to be friendless.
With that thought recurring to her more and more frequently, she had begun to treasure her few allies. So when Detective Adelio Suarez, her only friend in the Miami PD, asked for her help, the answer had to be yes. Suarez had told her that Garza had a major problem, her type of problem. Magical malfeasance with a rising body count.
“I must be out of my mind,” Garza said, reaching for the ignition.
“Six dead men, three dead women in a nightclub two weeks ago,” Sylvie reminded him. “Another eight down for the count last night, in hospital on IVs, still twitching. It’s a classic dance–’til–death curse.”
“I don’t believe in curses,” Garza said. He sat back, took his hand from the keys. Sighed. Spoke again. “I don’t want to believe in curses.”
“Hey,” Sylvie said. “You believed in them enough to pick out the bad guy.”
She opened the file folder in her lap again, though she’d memorized most of it. Marcel Braud. Twenty–seven years old. He looked bad on paper. Spoiled, rich, a history of smaller crimes: shoplifting, DUIs, and the habit of getting high and beating up his girlfriends. But he was sober now.
Sober enough to use black magic?
The first victim was his ex–girlfriend. The people who died were the ones who’d danced with her, or in her immediate orbit. Last night, the first one to fall under the curse was his current girlfriend, who Braud had accused of cheating. No matter which way Garza added it up, the culprit seemed the same. Braud.
Garza had told Sylvie that Braud, when brought in for questioning, hadn’t done much to deny it, only smirked and asked what Garza thought he could do about it.
Which led to this. Sitting outside Braud’s Key West condo waiting for their chance to go inside without witnesses. Garza’s jaw kept jumping. She couldn’t blame him. He was well out of his comfort zone.
She was in hers.
“Let’s go,” she said, as the neighbor pulled out and left the tiny parking lot quiet. The midday dead zone.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered, but followed her out of the car. “You sure about this?”
“He’s killing people,” Sylvie said.
“I meant . . . what’s protecting us from him?”
Garza watched her unholster her weapon, and visibly, carefully said nothing about a civilian drawing a gun like she meant to use it.
Sylvie tapped on Braud’s door, and when he opened it, she stuck her gun in his face and let herself in.
Garza shut the door hastily behind them.
“What is this?” Braud said, looking past Sylvie and her weapon. “Garza? You again? I’ll have your job.”
“No,” Sylvie said. “You won’t.”
She’d come prepared to scare him senseless, to take away any magic he’d gathered. Until this very moment, she’d assumed he had possession of some malignant magical tool that could be removed from his custody. But there was a chain around his neck with a too–familiar bat–wing pendant. Part identification, part magical amplification.
He was Maudit.
His magic was inborn.
The energy in the room shivered, fluxed cold, pulling away from them like an icy wave washing out to sea. Beside her, Garza shouted, his voice scaling up in panic.
Sylvie’s skin crawled; Braud smirked.
“Stop,” she said. Normally, she wouldn’t have bothered with that much warning, but she had a cop beside her. Her resistance to magic meant she could afford that momentary hesitation.
Garza, his face a rictus of pain, raised his gun and shot. Sylvie jerked aside; the air before Braud shimmered like an oil slick and let the flattened bullets slip down to ping hotly against the tile floor.
“Shadows!” Garza gasped. His face was blistering, tiny seeping pustules.
Braud jerked at hearing her identified, turned to look at her. Garza gasped in what sounded like relief as Braud’s focus split between them.
Braud repeated, “Shadows.”
Cold air rushed past her, sucking all the chill toward him. Heat sparked around her, stung her skin with points of fire. One of the Maudit top–ten favorites for removing an enemy: the immolation spell.
Sylvie stepped forward, ignored his increasingly desperate spell casting, ignored the heat that couldn’t seep beneath her skin, couldn’t boil her blood the way it was doing to Garza’s. She sent a bullet toward Braud’s skull.
A glimmer of that opalescent shield eddied between her bullet and his brains, then disappeared all at once, letting her shot hit home between his eyes.
Garza had a quiet breakdown at the door; his hand jittered between his own weapon, his radio, his brow. Finally, he said, “He tried to kill me. He tried to kill—I was burning alive.”
“And now you’re not,” Sylvie said. She eyed him carefully despite her flippant words. The welts on his face were fading fast, sinking back into his skin as the temperature around them dropped; the air conditioner whined, recovering from the sudden burst of heat.
Garza holstered his gun, kept patting at his face, his forearms. “My bullets didn’t touch him.”
“Magical body armor. It’s a Maudit thing. They like to attach a few prepared spells to their amulets.”
“Society of very bad men. Who have issues with women. I should have known when you told me he was killing off his girlfriends.”
“You killed him. You carrying special rounds? Like silver?”
“No,” Sylvie said. She didn’t elaborate. Cops liked facts, and she didn’t have any. What could she say? That her bullets somehow could be relied on to find a weakness in magical shields? She hadn’t figured it out herself. “Call the hospital. Let’s make sure the people he cursed are healed up, too.”
“Make him disappear?” She tried to sound like this was a first for her, that she was just as lost as he was. Garza eyed her sidelong, suspicious. Not surprising. She didn’t do innocent very well.
She was going to catch hell for this one way or the other. She really hadn’t been expecting to kill Braud, had expected a one–spell dilettante, the kind that could be scared straight. But the Maudits were a different type of sorcerer entirely: socially connected, rich, entitled, and far more talented than they deserved to be. Death was the only thing that stopped them.
Garza could have been killed. She’d endangered her client.
She should have come alone.
She was tired of going it alone.
“. . . they’re awake? Stopped seizing? No, no, no need to bother the doctor. That’s wonderful. May I interview them in the morning? Perfect.”
Sylvie eavesdropped shamelessly, felt a quick glow of satisfaction. That was that, then.
Garza disconnected. The unhappy tension in his face had changed out for a visible and grim contentment. Not the outcome he’d planned but one he could live with. “So, we make him disappear. How?”
“Your case. Your call.” She’d love to push this off onto Garza if she could. Failing that, she certainly wasn’t going to suggest a place to dump the body. There was foolhardy—shooting a sorcerer dead in front of a cop—and then there was just plain stupid—drawing a cop, no matter how friendly, a map to her occasional graveyard.
Garza grimaced. “God. Yeah. I can’t believe I’m saying this.”
“Didn’t believe in curses either, at first.”
“Fine. There’s a drug spot. I’ll leave him there. Braud has a past of drug–related offenses. A deal gone wrong in a drug alley will pass. Your gun on file?”
“No. What about the apartment?” There wasn’t a lot of mess. Braud’s magical shield hadn’t saved him, but it had contained the blood spatter surprisingly well. And since the shield was keyed to the bat–wing amulet, it was keeping the blood spill close to the body.
“I know someone,” Garza said.
“Figured as much.” Sylvie shivered. Cops made the best murderers. Or accomplices.
When Sylvie hadn’t heard from Garza in a week, when the finding of Braud’s body passed almost without comment in the press—odd for a wealthy white man with a luxury lifestyle—she bit back her instincts that suggested no news was good news, and called him.
“Any fallout?” she asked, when he answered.
“Who is this?”
Sylvie hung up, frowning. Garza’s confusion sounded real. More, when she’d mentioned Braud, his attention had sharpened as if he’d been investigating Braud’s death. Not covering it up.
Sylvie figured it was time for a trip back to Key West.
Hours later, she waved at Detective Raul Garza across a parking lot, and he raised a hand back in the halfhearted way one did when recognition was lacking. She let her hand drop. She wasn’t as surprised as she should have been. Garza had been her fourth stop. Sylvie had visited some of the dance–’til–you–die–cursed clubbers, and none of them recalled anything more complex than someone maybe spiking my drink? One man, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, as if his feet felt bruised and tender, said he thought that maybe there’d been E going around.
When she pressed, tried to get them to admit they recalled more, remembered something magical, they’d locked up and stuttered like a skipped record, claimed headaches. She imagined, if she confronted Garza, he’d do the same.
Her jaw set; she tightened her grip on the steering wheel as she turned the truck for Miami and home.
The thing was, Sylvie had always known the world was blind to the Magicus Mundi, that people would ignore their own senses to come up with a more “real world” answer. It wasn’t a werewolf that ate the family pet, it was an alligator. Fur? What fur?
People liked their world’s being safe and sane and sensible. Sylvie had always assumed that the hard cases who denied magic even when it was happening big and bright and undeniable in front of them were willfully blind.
She’d never considered that they might have been blindfolded by someone or something else.
Maybe she needed to.
This wasn’t the first time Sylvie had expected to have real–world fallout from a magical event: After the gods had battled in Chicago, scattering god–power and warping the city, she’d expected to hear endless speculation and theorizing. Instead, there’d been a news report about an inland storm and freak occurrences brought on by panic and strange atmospheric pressures. Strange atmospheric pressures that allowed children to bring nightmares to life, that set buildings to attacking each other, and lifted roadways off the ground like ribbons. Very strange pressures.
That was the most egregious example, but several hours of research later, Sylvie had compiled a list of should–have–been–noticed events. Chicago, obviously. The cursed bodies she’d found in the Everglades, more locally. And reading between the lines on newspaper accounts and her case files: another half dozen. It seemed like anytime the Magicus Mundi made itself felt with a significant death toll, something or someone swept it under the proverbial rug.
Sylvie, who believed in honesty, even if she didn’t always practice it, found it insupportable. She couldn’t stop people from pretending the Magicus Mundi didn’t exist. But deliberately blinding them? The world was dangerous enough when you knew the predators existed, even subconsciously. If you weren’t allowed to know? It was like being shoved into a room to take a test without even knowing what the subject was, and if you failed, you died.
She and her business partner, Alexandra Figueroa–Smith, would have to do some research. Find out who was behind it. Find out why they were doing it. And find out what it would take to stop them.
Sylvie had a whole list of things she disliked—misogynist sorcerers, incompetent drivers, government agents who raided her office illegally, trashed her security, and absconded with her files, lovers who were too busy to call, and cops who weren’t—too many things to really enumerate or rank, but frantic phone calls from her clients were close to the top.
She liked frantic calls even less when things were theoretically under control. Her client, Lupe Fernandez, was supposed to be tucked up safe and sound at her parents’ home.
Lupe’s call had been brief, mostly unintelligible. It had been three minutes of sobbing, shouting, a vibration of mortal terror. When the call had disconnected, mid panicked babble, Sylvie knew something had gone wrong. Knew she hadn’t done her job right.
That was the kind of thought that ruined her morning, sent her scrabbling out of her bed, grabbing at clothes, her gun, her keys, and heading for her truck at a dead run. Not the way she preferred to begin her days. Ideally, they’d start with waking before the alarm went off, having time for a leisurely cup of coffee, a morning jog, or swim if the day was too hot, then a late breakfast at her office, while Alex caught her up on potential clients.
If it were a really good day, when she woke, Demalion would be beside her, lashes dark on his face, the glint of blond stubble in slanting sunlight, sleeping as determinedly as a cat. If it were a good day, she’d get to lean over and nudge him awake, watch his pupils flare and fade as he blinked into morning light.
It hadn’t been a good day for months.
Sylvie laid on the horn, cursed rush–hour traffic, and stomped on the gas, jerking her truck around a multitasking driver who had one hand full of coffee cup, the other full of cell phone, and was failing to steer with his knees.
Her throat was tight, worried about Lupe. The woman had been through so much already. Kidnapped by Azpiazu the soul devourer, used as a magical conduit, finally freed through Sylvie’s actions. . . only to find she wasn’t as free as everyone thought.
Azpiazu had slapped a shape–shifting spell on his victims as part of his attempt to control his own unmanageable shifting. When Sylvie had killed him and broken the spell that linked him to his victims, she’d thought it was over. Had seen the women home with the sense of a job well–done.
Then Lupe had called her the first full moon after, in total hysterics; the moon rose, and Lupe shifted into a werewolf in her screened–in patio. Reason enough for hysterics, but it had been far worse than that. Lupe hadn’t been alone. Her girlfriend, Jenny, had been curled next to her on the patio swing. Jenny had needed 134 stitches in her face, chest, shoulder, and arm, lost three fingers on her right hand, and gained a cracked skull. She’d nearly bled out before Lupe woke the next morning and called 911.
Unsurprisingly, the two broke up. Jenny didn’t really remember what had happened; the concussion and blood loss saw to that, but at the same time, Lupe said, Jenny was afraid of her.
Lupe was afraid of herself.
Sylvie had taken her out to Tatya and Marisol in the Everglades, two women, two werewolves, who she thought might be willing to help deal with the change. They had been. Again, Sylvie had thought, problem solved. Or at least shelved.
Sunlight lancing through her windshield from the car before her made her squint and wince, and realize she’d torn out of her apartment without grabbing her sunglasses. A small pain, though, compared to what Lupe was going through.
Finding out she was a werewolf was bad and freaky enough—curse–inflicted lycanthropy was insanely rare—but spending the full moon with Tatya and Marisol had proved that Lupe’s problems were larger than that. With Tatya and Marisol at her side, Lupe had been braced to deal with the wolf–change, assured that no one would be hurt this time.
The problem was that Lupe didn’t shift into a wolf. She changed under the moon, wasn’t left a human between two monsters, but she didn’t turn into a wolf either. For her second full moon, Lupe turned into a jaguar, all fury and rage at being caught between the two werewolves. No one came out of that unscathed.
Lupe didn’t heal like Tatya and Marisol did, either; she was left with bloody bite marks that bled and scabbed for weeks. She bore the wounds without complaint, saying Jenny had had it worse.
Sylvie had started looking into witches, hoping to find someone who could break the curse. It was a slow, too–slow, process, trying to find a witch with the right ratio of power to trustworthiness, and they’d run out of time. It didn’t help that three months ago, the ISI had helped themselves to Sylvie’s files. The ISI was supposed to deal with the intersection of the Magicus Mundi and the real world, but they had chosen to use the information gleaned from Sylvie’s files to run the few remaining local witches Sylvie could work with out of town. Business as usual with them. They would rather inconvenience Sylvie than do anything productive.
So for the third moon, last night’s moon, Lupe had made her own arrangements. She’d gone to her parents’ home while they were on a buying trip in New York City and locked herself in a zoo–quality cage that she’d set up in the home gym. Obviously, something had gone wrong. Again. Lupe couldn’t seem to catch a break.
Sylvie changed lanes, got off the highway, and hoped Lupe hadn’t killed someone. If that happened, she didn’t know what she’d do.
Put a bullet in her brain, her little dark voice suggested. You kill monsters.
It was true. If she had been coming into the case from the outside, she would have shot Lupe already and fed her bones to the sea. But Lupe was hers. Sylvie had saved her from the sorcerer, and she was responsible for her well–being.
She was forced to a stop outside the gated community’s security station and bit back her impatience. She’d forgotten Lupe’s family had money and the paranoia to go with it. The guard leaned out of his station, eyed her beat–up truck, eyed her, said nothing. “Sylvie Lightner,” she said. “I’m here to see the Fernandezes.”
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